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The Iceman Ötzi’s ancestors

brought farming to Europe

Iceman Ötzi

August 2023: The Iceman Ötzi, discovered in 1991 in the Tyrolian Alps, had darker skin than previously thought and was most likely bald. Thanks to improved genome analysis, researchers also discovered that Ötzi's farming ancestors came from Anatolia (in today’s Turkey) to Europe where they met the original hunter-gatherers. Ötzi lived in the Alps around 3250 BC. Since 1991, when German tourists found his body, the mummy has been an object of intense research.

In 2012, Ötzi's genetic material, ie his genome, was decoded. Since then, the methods of analysis have improved so much that researchers can now say much more precisely what he looked like, what diseases he could have contracted and where his ancestors came from.

A research team from the Max-Planck Institute in Leipzig (Germany)* and the Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano (Italy)* analysed the Iceman’s genome using the latest sequencing methods. The study corrects previous findings regarding Ötzi’s genetic descent from populations that migrated from the eastern steppes. At the same time, it allows new conclusions to be drawn about his health and appearance, especially regarding his skin colour and hair.

The research team concluded that the Iceman came from a relatively isolated population that had very little contact with other European groups. “We were very surprised to find no traces of Eastern European Steppe Herders in the most recent analysis of the Iceman genome; the proportion of hunter-gatherer genes in Ötzi’s genome is also very low. Genetically, his ancestors seem to have arrived directly from Anatolia without mixing with hunter-gatherer groups,” explained the research’s co-author Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute.

The research also yielded new results about Ötzi's appearance. His skin type, already determined in the first genome analysis to be Mediterranean-European, was even darker than previously thought. “It's the darkest skin tone that has been recorded in contemporary European individuals,” explains anthropologist Albert Zink, research co-author from the Eurac Research Institute: “It was previously thought that the mummy's skin had darkened during its preservation in the ice, but presumably what we see now is actually largely Ötzi's original skin colour. Knowing this, of course, is also important for the proper conservation of the mummy.”

The previous image of Ötzi is also incorrect regarding his hair. As a mature man, he most likely no longer had long, thick hair on his head, but at most a sparse crown of hair. His genes, in fact, show a predisposition to baldness. “This is a relatively clear result and could also explain why almost no hair was found on the mummy,” said Albert Zink. Genes presenting an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes were also found in Ötzi's genome, however, these factors probably did not come into play thanks to his active lifestyle.

The original hunter-gatherers of Western Europe gradually merged into the early farming populations who migrated from the Middle East (Anatolia) around 8,000 years ago. Around 4,900 years ago herders from the steppes arrived from Eastern Europe. Contrary to the first study, the team no longer found any genetic traces of these steppe herders. Instead, in comparison with other people from the Copper Age, Ötzi's DNA had a higher proportion of genetic material from ‘Anatolian’ farmers. This indicates that the Iceman had ancestors who farmed and lived a relatively isolated life in the Alps.

* Sources: The Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig) and the Institute for Mummy Studies of Eurac Research in Bolzano (Italy). The full research study was published in the journal Cell Genomics on 16 August 2023.

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